A Moral Identity Crisis

April 24th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Is doing the wrong thing but claiming it’s for the right reasons ever right?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

We’ve watched all things personal undergo very public makeovers on reality TV--our noses, our houses, our cars and jobs and spouses. But something more fundamental may have quietly fallen victim to a makeover as well: our moral identities.

Moral identity is how you view and describe yourself in ethical terms--honest, caring, opposed to cheating, committed to doing the right thing, etc. But two business researchers say people with a strong sense of moral awareness can actually become the biggest failures in the face of moral challenges.

In a study reported by LiveScience.com and originally published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers asked a group of people if they considered themselves moral, and if they would cheat on a test.

The people who said they would never cheat described themselves as very moral--no surprise. But the people who said they would indeed cheat also described themselves as very moral. Huh?

The study deduced that when a person with a strong moral identity is faced with a moral decision, they choose their fate--for good or bad--and then pursue it until the extreme end, driven by their extreme moral identity.

In other words, they justify cheating as a means to a moral end, as in this example given by one of the researchers: "If I cheat, then I’ll get into get into graduate school. And if I get into graduate school, then I can become a doctor. And think about all the people I’m going to help when I’m a doctor."

Is doing the wrong thing--but claiming it’s for the right reasons--ever really right?